Just 18,000 of Montgomery County’s more than 1 million residents live in Takoma Park, the famously liberal enclave in the southeast corner of Maryland’s largest jurisdiction.
Yet for reasons that are not entirely clear, a full third of the nine-member County Council hails from there.
That anomaly is one reason the county’s Charter Review Commission is weighing whether to restructure the council for the first time in 27 years, potentially reducing the number of at-large seats on the council or eliminating them altogether.
“A lot of people have said they’re very upset that the current structure allows so many people from the same community to be elected,” said Paul Bessel, a retired Montgomery County lawyer who chairs the commission. “Some might say, ‘Well that’s just temporary.’ Well, it might be, but it might not be. In any case, it’s bad to have that as a possibility.”
Bessel said the commission is considering a wide range of options for the council, which makes laws and land-use decisions for the county and consists of five district representatives and four at-large seats — three of which are currently held by people from Takoma Park.
The two most likely proposals are shifting the council’s framework to two at-large and seven district seats, or eliminating the at-large seats altogether and having nine district seats.
A public hearing to solicit voter input is scheduled for October.
Those who criticize the concentration of Takoma Park residents on the council say they tend to focus on issues most important to people living in the heavily populated parts of the county that border Washington, rather than those who live farther out.
Robin Ficker, a Republican who is running for county executive and last year led a successful campaign to establish term limits in Montgomery, pointed to the council’s support for construction of the light-rail Purple Line as one example of the body bending to the preferences of Takoma Park residents.
Meanwhile, Ficker said, the county did little to successfully address heavy congestion along Interstate 270, which stretches farther out into the county.
In general, Ficker said, having so many at-large seats means more representation on the council from the county’s most densely populated areas, whose voters can crowd out the influence of people who live in rural areas and tend to lean more conservative.
“It was like that council district had four people on the council,” Ficker said of District 5, which includes Takoma Park. “They were elected countywide, but they did not have a countywide point of view.”
Elected officials from Takoma Park don’t see it that way.
If the city were significantly benefiting from the council’s current makeup, said Mayor Kate Stewart, the city probably would have gotten farther on addressing issues such as tax duplication.
Currently, residents pay annual property taxes to the county and city, without receiving a cut in county taxes for services already provided by Takoma Park.
“If we were going to get favorable treatment because we have County Council members living here, that issue would have been resolved,” Stewart said.
Council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large), who is running for county executive and would be prohibited from seeking another term on the council because of Ficker’s term-limits statute, called the Republican’s criticism “utterly bogus.”
“This has never protected Takoma Park,” Elrich said. “It’s a nice little myth that certain people like to foster, as if there’s some Takoma Park conspiracy to run the universe.”
Still, Elrich said he favors adding more district seats on the council, so members could represent smaller areas.
Political engagement in Takoma Park does not stop at the county level. Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D), elected to Congress last year after years as a state lawmaker, calls the city home, as does state Comptroller Peter Franchot (D).
President Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, Denis McDonough, as well as Tom Perez, chair of the Democratic National Committee and a former secretary of labor, are also longtime residents of the place nicknamed the “People’s Republic of Takoma.” Ficker himself was born in Takoma Park, and he talks fondly about marching in its iconic Fourth of July parade.
Recognized as one of the United States’ most liberal cities, Takoma Park allows noncitizens to vote in local elections if they have a green card and years ago declared itself a nuclear-free zone.
“We’re a very active community, and so it’s not surprising to me that in a community where people want to not just talk about change but make change happen, that they do that locally,” said Stewart, who was elected mayor in 2015.
Raskin cited the annual parade as an example of Takoma Park being “an old-fashioned American town with very traditional civic virtues.”
In addition to Elrich, the other at-large council members from Takoma Park are George L. Leventhal and Hans Riemer, both Democrats. Leventhal, like Elrich, is term-limited and running to succeed retiring County Executive Isiah Leggett (D).
Riemer is seeking reelection in 2018. Seth Grimes, who served on the Takoma Park City Council from 2011 to 2015, also is seeking an at-large seat.
Montgomery County’s reexamination of the number of at-large vs. district seats follows a related debate in Prince George’s County, which got rid of its at-large seats decades ago. In November, Prince George’s voters opted to return two at-large seats to the council, expanding the body to 11 members. Advocates for government reform pushed for the addition to discourage parochialism on the council.
Following October’s public hearing, the commission will have until April to submit a specific recommendation to the County Council. The council, in turn, will have the option of placing the proposal on the 2018 ballot.
Any changes probably would take effect during the 2022 elections.